In 1968 the Honda Grand Prix team arrived at the French Grand Prix with two cars, one of which incorporated some highly experimental ideas. The race would be held on July 7, the usual early July time for the French race. But instead of the high speed triangular circuit at Reims, this year’s race would be held on a challenging four-mile public road course called Rouen-Les Essarts, located not far from the northwestern French town of Rouen. It had been the scene of various races, including some prior runnings of this premier French event. The Rouen course was very fast and incorporated a series of high speed sweeping right-left-right downhill corners immediately after the start/finish line which ended at a tight almost 180° hairpin called Nouveau Monde before climbing back through more fast bends in the forest and eventually returning to the top straight via another hairpin.
John Surtees would drive his usual mount, the Honda RA301, and tested the experimental RA302 during practice but would not race it, having concluded that it was unsafe. The RA301 was actually a Lola, but fitted with a Honda 3 liter V12 motor. So far during the 1968 season it had retired at each of the four races where it had appeared. The RA302 was a new Honda-built car with a magnesium chassis and used an air-cooled V8 motor, reflecting Honda’s famed motorcycle engine technology. In spite of John Surtees’ opinion, Soichiro Honda insisted that his personal brainchild be raced and the French journeyman driver Jo Schlesser was called in to do so. Here he is sitting in the RA302 during final practice. The bearded man in the dark jacket standing at the rear of the car is famed British journalist Denis Jenkinson.
Surtees qualified in the middle of the grid while Schlesser was in the back row and almost six seconds slower than his team leader. At the start Jacky Ickx took the lead in a Ferrari 312F1. On the second lap as the field was descending the high speed sweepers, Schlesser’s car probably lost power at a critical moment and ran off and up the high outer bank of the left-hander before flipping over back down the bank and exploding on the road. Poor Jo Schlesser was trapped in the inferno which would burn for 20 minutes. He never had a chance.
The race continued. Surtees and the others had to drive past the fire and wreckage lap after lap. Surtees would finally finish second, some two minutes behind Ickx. Another RA302 was then built and was taken to the Italian Grand Prix at Monza two months later. Surtees tried it again and again refused to drive it.
Photo by Nigel Snowdon ©The Klemantaski Collection – http://www.klemcoll.com
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